Answering a reader question about run-walking

I got a comment on my last post about my trail ultra, and I realized as I was typing out a novel in response that I should probably write a post about it instead.  I get a lot of questions about run-walking, which is fine because I have a lot of opinions about it as well!

Okay, so here’s the question:

I’m not a distance runner, but what brought you to use the 3:1 run walk ratio? I guess I’m under the impression that for races, you should strive to run the entire thing.

First, I want to talk about the last part of the comment.  Personally I don’t think there’s one specific way to race that people should strive for.  I think that as long as you got yourself from the start line to the finish line under the power of your own legs/prosthetics/wheelchair/whatever and you obeyed all of the rules of the race (looking at all of you cheating Rosie Ruizes), what you did counts.  Some people walk the whole thing, some people run, some people try to run but end up stumbling to a walk three-quarters of a way through.  In the end, though, the important thing is finishing (and ideally without the need for medical attention).

For me, when I am racing a distance I feel comfortable with, I try to run the whole thing.  However, if the distance is new to me, I will use a run-walk method to make it less psychologically intimidating.  It’s easier for me to think of running in blocks of three minutes than running for 26.2 miles or whatever.

I decided to do this after going to the expo of my first half-marathon, which was in Ogden in May 2008.  I had trained somewhat but my training had been far from ideal or consistent, and my longest training run had been a ten-miler.  I was, in a word, terrified.  Like, my hands quivered, my stomach roiled like a cauldron of fear.  But we happened to catch Jeff Galloway speaking at the expo, and he used his time to talk about the Galloway method.  Basically, the Galloway method calls for taking walk breaks at regular intervals throughout the course of a run.  (Here’s more if you are curious.)

When I realized that was an option, most of my anxiety evaporated, and I went out and completed my first half-marathon and had a blast while doing so.  I ended up doing the run-walk for several more half-marathons, until the Key West Half-Marathon in January 2011, where I decided to try to run the whole thing, and ended up breaking two hours for the first time!

Since then I’ve run ten half-marathons, and with the exception of one race, I came in at under two hours at all of them.  (My half-marathon times tend to be around the 1:43-1:46 realm these days.)  I don’t think I would have been able to get to this point had it not been for the psychological comfort I developed through those first couple years of run-walking.  Now I am so comfortable with the distance that I can line up for one and feel only flutters of excitement, never fear.

I also used it for my first marathon, the Walt Disney World Marathon in January 2010 (which I finished in 4:49).  Once I saw that, yes, I could cover 26.2 miles under the power of my own body and that, yeah, it was going to hurt a lot but it wasn’t going to kill me, I felt comfortable trying to run the whole distance.  It took me two failed attempts – at Big Sur in 2012 and Bahamas in 2013 -but I finally got my no-walk (and my sub-4:00!) marathon this past January in Clearwater.

This is the other thing about run-walking.  Not only does it help me psychologically, by taking a previously unheard-of distance – for me – and breaking it down to tiny bite-size chunks of running and walking, but it’s also a lot easier on your body.  Don’t get me wrong, it still hurts, but it’s nothing like running straight through.  Whenever I talk to someone who is taking on a half-marathon or longer for the first time, I always tell them about run-walking.

It’s with this history that I decided I would do my first trail ultra with a run-walk, and why I’m planning to do my 50-miler in the Keys with a run-walk.  Both of these are/were unprecedented distances that scared the living bejesus out of me, and so by slicing it up into three-minute intervals of running spaced out with one-minute intervals of walking, I am better able to cope mentally AND physically.  I may not be as fast as I could be but at least I finish, you know?  Plus, the next time I sign up for  a 50K race (which was basically what my trail ultra was, plus a couple miles) I’ll have a better idea of what it feels like so I can actually consider trying to run the whole thing.

Now, there’s an added dimension to all of this that comes when you start getting into the ultra distances.  Because the distances and the amount of time spent on the road/trail become so much greater, a lot of training plans actually suggest racers train with regular walking intervals in mind.  Because here’s the thing – unless you are Scott Jurek or Kami Semick, you will probably be walking at some point.  I’ve read a ton of material in anticipation of this race, and almost every single one of them says run-walking will really help you out when you are racing in an ultra (and even more so if you are a n00b, like I am).

Here’s one guy who says walking during an ultra could actually lead to faster finish times.  I believe it.  My times when I employed a run-walk strategy were nothing spectacular but they weren’t bad, either.  BTW it was hard for me to deal with this at first, when I’d find myself left behind because of those early walk intervals and I’d feel slightly embarrassed, but experience taught me that I would eventually catch a good number of those people later in the race.  This style of racing really required I shut my ego down and tell her to stay down, at least at the beginning.

The run-walk ratio suggested by a lot of the training plans is actually quite different from what I’m planning on doing.  For instance, this post suggests 25 minutes of walking and five minutes of running, which would break down to a five minute walk/one minute run schedule.  The reason why I’m going for the shorter intervals is simple: it is going to be hot like the motherfucking sun out there, and the more energy I can conserve at any given time, the better.  I’m not trying to age-group or beat a specific time goal or anything like that.  I just want to finish, and past experience has taught me that this will be a good way to get that done.

Runners: what are your thoughts on run-walking?  Have you ever done it?  Do you do it now?  Or do you prefer not to?  Why or why not?

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27 responses to “Answering a reader question about run-walking

  1. For a very long time I trained by with a 10:1 run:walk and eventually went to 20:1 for anything over 10 miles. LIke you, it was how I managed new distances and even today its how I manage a run I’m not very enthusiastic about. I can’t drink and run at the same time if I want to get most of it in my mouth, so I walk thru all aid stations for long races and don’t use aide stations unless its super hot under half marathon. Triathlons of all distance I walk to drink at the run aid stations as well. So the 20:1 works for me because that’s generally the longest time between aid stations in a race. Sometimes its more, sometimes its less, but 2-3 miles apart is pretty normal.

    I pretty rarely run every step of a race and I also do pretty well in my age group and have BQed. My miles are very consistent. My marathon PR with walking at every aid station resulted in miles that were all within 5 seconds of each other, so, to me, walking is just about managing your endurance.

  2. Every runner I know who does trail ultras run/walks them. The theory is you walk the hills, especially early in the race, to preserve your muscle strength for later in the race. It’s worked great for me in every trail race I’ve done, even shorter non-ultra distances. It also serves as an opportunity to take in some calories and hydration. Every time I walk a hill, it’s my reminder to eat and drink something.

  3. I’ve never even thought of doing this. In my own mind, a successful race is the one you run through. Granted I’ve only done 5ks, but the first time I had to run/walk one, I felt like a failure.

    I’ve always had trouble with long distances and my achilles tendons giving out on me. I had to pull out of a half marathon because of it. Maybe had I used this method, it would have been way easier on my body. Thanks for the advice! 🙂

  4. I’m an extremely heavy, extremely slow runner (jogger?), and so my goal was always to “run” any given distance start-to-finish (because that would be a point of pride). But I have friends who have been training for half and full marathons with the Galloway method, with pretty spectacular results. Generally they finish long races with much better times using walk/run intervals than they would if they were to run them straight.

    I still tend to train with the run-the-whole-distance goal in mind, and I have a hard time maintaining the Galloway ratio. But I do have a natural walk/run interval that kicks in when my heartrate gets above [some ridiculously large number]. I suspect I would be going quite a bit faster if I started the walk/run intervals before I got to that point.

  5. I feel so much better after reading this post. I’m just getting back into running after a year off thanks to a badly torn meniscus. I was beating myself up yesterday when I had to stop after a mile and walk for a few minutes. Twice. Thanks for the insight.

  6. I am an open water swimmer by trade, but I have always, always had a half and full marathon on my Fitness Bucket List. Every single time I have started a program, no matter how perfect and/or conservative my preparation/training/shoes/strength training/stretching/massages/icing, I would end up injured. I finally embraced Galloway’s method and I am finally pain free – there is clearly a correlation, as no other training variable has changed other than I do a run/walk ratio.

    I too was in the mentality of “run it all or don’t bother”, but one day I woke up and said, “Who the heck cares if I run all 13 miles or walk run them? Seriously…who cares?” When I realized that it was only ME that cared, I focused on the fact that all I wanted to do was finish, stay healthy, and have enough fun that I would want to do it again. And if the only way for this body to do that is to run-walk, so be it. I am having fun, and I am absolutely, finally, peacefully on track to get to the starting line in September for my race.

    • Hey, question for you – in the above description of your races and training, do you do 3:1 or another ratio? Do you find you can do a quite quick 3 minutes, or is it like, 3 minutes of jogging?

      I myself am under absolutely no hallucinations about doing anything “ultra” quickly, but I’m wondering if this might be a route for me to be faster overall than I am now in a half marathon. I’m so damn slow!

  7. I listen to music, so I tend to run for the duration of one song and walk for the next. Because I know the songs very well, I can focus on the music while also knowing how much longer I have to run. Of course, with songs like “Get Lucky” that repeat themselves, this does not work very well (it has been stricken off my running playlist).

  8. I run/walk pretty much always. I’ve had trouble with injuries and honestly it helps keep me uninjured. I find I do better mentally if I don’t do set intervals, which took me a long time to figure out. I run until I need to walk, walk for 2-3 minutes and then go again. Granted, I’m just beginning to really run, but I’ve trained for a half-marathon this way and seen the intervals of running start to increase dramatically.

    • I’m glad to hear that it works for you! I definitely think run-walking is great if you are injury-prone because you end up experiencing a lot less impact on your body as a result. Keep up the good work!

  9. I always run/walk. Especially when it comes to trail running, some of the hills are far too steep to make running up them worth the energy expenditure. I find that I’m much better off power-walking (or just walking) up some of those because the difference in speed going up them between running and walking is not so great that it justifies the extra energy it’d take out of my body. Plus, I can always try to make up for it with a faster downhill. I personally think it’s a smart strategy and have read numerous books claiming the same. Also, I don’t like running uphill so any theory that validates that is fine by me. 🙂

    • Walking up the hills makes so much sense. I ended up doing that during my trail ultra – not at first but toward the end – and it was so helpful. (Never mind that I probably couldn’t have even run up them even if I wanted to…)

      BTW dude, when I saw the documentary I just blogged about and saw that Lisa Tamati was in it, you were the first person I thought of! I remembered that post you wrote where you ran part of a race alongside her. I probably would have done the same. She’s so badass.

  10. I went through a phase of run/walking when I was getting back into running after being sick. Even when I was recovered, I found it so much easier mentally that I kept it up. And the kicker was, for me, my average paces were actually faster than if I had run the entire time. I varied the ratio from 3:1 to 8:1, and I found that the shorter my running intervals were, the faster my overall time was. I don’t do it much anymore, but occasionally if I know I’m headed for a tough run, whether it’s a longer distance than I’m used to or just really hot outside, I’ll still do a 4:1 or 5:1 ratio.

    • I believe that you were faster! I was often a lot faster than people who tried to run the whole thing, with the added bonus of not finding myself exhausted and slogging through those last miles.

      I really feel like the 3:1 ratio is going to save my life during this race.

  11. I’m fascinated by the mindset that “real runners don’t walk,” though I absolutely thought that way when I first started out. Early on, my goal was always to run X distance without walking… walking meant failure, just like it did in seventh grade gym class. But once I became stronger (and more confident) and began running longer distances, I realized that I didn’t need to “prove” that I could run the whole thing — I knew I could! — and that planned walking intervals would help minimize the damage to my muscles and help me finish faster overall. In fact, if I made a pledge to NOT walk during a marathon, it would seem needlessly masochistic. 😉

    • I know people who still say that, and while I understand why I definitely think it’s worth doing away with that belief. Not only will it make running easier on people who are injury-prone, but it might make people more inclined to try it out!

      I will admit that I set a goal for myself to not walk during a marathon, but that was just a personal thing I did for myself. It didn’t make the other three marathons in which I did walk any less of an accomplishment, you know?

  12. I started running in my late-20’s because I was tired of admiring people and who ran and telling myself I could never do that. My method was running the way out on a out and back and walking the return…then later I observed when I would run with friends who had “serious” running backgrounds (e.g. had been runners on their college teams) they had no shame in stopping and walking. In fact, when running down a city street with one of these friends she would often stop to window shop – for her that was part of the fun/experience.

    • That sounds like a lot of fun. I usually don’t run on city streets – mostly on recreational trails – and I often stop to check out all of the animals I see (bunnies, bats, cats, tortoises, etc.). Part of the fun of being outside is getting to take in all the sights around us!

  13. While I have no marathon experience (yet), as a long-distance road cyclist I have to say that run/walk makes perfect sense to me when I draw analogies to life on the bike. For a significant distance (let’s say 80-100 miles+), cyclists are stopping for feed breaks every 30-40 miles, which necessitates usually a 5-10 minute period off the bike; further, as a rule cyclists spend a good portion of an endurance ride working at a moderate endurance pace, which means HR comparatively low (for me, that’s working at around 130bpm, rather than 160bpm) and a decent amount of “spinning” the legs rather than pushing significant gear (translation: a kind of walk phase on the bike). It’s simply not possible to push hard all the time; your quads would seize up. As Kimberly notes above, this is about “managing endurance” in a safe and healthy way that pays attention to what your body needs in order to cover the distance efficiently (and to have fun).

    As a point of comparison, when I did the 24-hour London-to-Paris challenge last July, we stopped EIGHT times, including a 3-hour stop for crossing the English channel by ferry. Some of those stops were brief; a couple were 1/2 hour or so to eat a proper meal. We were riding nearly 300 miles in a very condensed period of time, burning well north of 10,000 calories, so many of us just broke the ride down psychologically into eight moderate chunks, with the goal always to get to the next feed station, NOT to get to the Eiffel Tower. Little by little we made it, and in very decent time. More importantly, the day after, we were all a bit sore but OK, and proud of what we’d done!

  14. I have done many ultras (mostly 50K, one 50 mile) and run/walk is so key. I don’t have a specific scheme, it’s often dependent on the race ( namely, where the hills are). I have been pacing my 73 yo mother in a series of half marathons and we walk/run, mostly tailored on how she feels and the hills. There is absolutely no shame in walking if you still bring in an age group time. It’s called racing smart!

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  16. I always do a run:walk ratio for ultra distances. When I first heard about the concept I heard it as 5 min running to 1 min of walking, but that should only happen when you’re at least through 25% of the race. Doing it before that point will just waste time.

    Another thing I read before doing my first ultra was to walk the uphills, run the down hills, and run the flats. When faced with my first ultra a 36 miler in VT, that concept was well used. I walked almost all the uphill portions, and ran the downhills, and flats.

    When doing halfs I never need to walk anymore, I can just push through the whole time running. As for marathon distances, I can’t tell you what I do since I’ve never run one.

  17. I’m so glad to have read this. I set a goal for myself to run a 5K in June. I’ve made progress that is, to me, pretty amazing. I can run 20 consecutive minutes now! But since I am very large and slow (aiming for 16 minutes/mile and not always making it) I know now that to run the whole 5K, I would need to more than double my current level if endurance in about 8 weeks. I just can’t see that as a realistic possibility. I had already compromised my original goal and decided to walk the hills, but it sounds like run/walking in some kind of ratio might allow me to get through more pleasantly, and maybe even a little faster. It’s much less intimidating than thinking about running at max capacity for 45 minutes. Do you look at a watch to keep track of your intervals, or set some kind of timer? Thanks for the post!

    • Hey, good luck with your 5K! I think your plan sounds really realistic and like it will give you a good shot at completing the race while feeling strong. Try tinkering around with various ratios and seeing what works best for you.

      As far as the intervals, I am lucky enough to have a Garmin that I can set to beep at the intervals, but before I had that, I just looked at my watch. The Garmin is super convenient but it is also not necessary.

  18. I love that you addressed this since some people feel shame in walk/running, and I’ve felt it myself. I’m not a runner by any means, but even when I go for a jog I have to stop and walk because I have a bad knee. I usually feel silly when I pass runners and have to stop because of the pain, but I know I have to listen to my body. (I’ve had surgery but my knee still goes out of the socket every once in a while.) I exercise regularly though because I refuse to let my knee be my excuse. It can be a nuisance, but it’s nothing compared to challenges that others face. Any type of physical accomplishment comes down to the fact that that person ran that race, completed that fitness challenge, hiked up that mountain, etc.

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